The tiny dishes of this Lyttelton eatery grew on locals, says Jesse Mulligan.
When Giulio Sturla opened Roots, an ultra-modern restaurant in Lyttelton, the locals hated it. The Canterbury harbour town may have relaxed into its role at the cutting edge of New Zealand's alt-country music industry, but the idea of an eatery with no menu — just a 10-course degustation — didn't go down well.
"People would say, 'I just want a steak, do you have a steak in the freezer?'" says Giulio, who trained at the world-renowned Mugaritz in Spain's northern Basque country.
"I'd tell them, 'I don't have steak. I don't even have a freezer'."
But he held his ground, serving multiple, tiny, perfect courses made from the best possible ingredients. When I visited, one of these dishes was a golf ball-sized roll with a baked bready crust and a stretchy soft cheese centre, inspired by his original home in South America.
"Cheese is different in the tropics," he says.
"It took me three months to find a local cheese that works with this dish: a two-year-old cheddar from Barrys Bay in Akaroa."
It tasted amazing. The crunch and stretch combined to an incredible moreish texture and the heat and smell made it a multi-sensory experience. Still, for locals raised on the more traditional southern cheese roll, you can see why this sort of mind-bending food might not immediately take off.
"Many days, we had no bookings. On a Saturday we'd have two or four people. This went on for months."
For all his confidence in the food, Giulio, who came to New Zealand with his American wife looking for a visa-friendly country, must have been wondering whether he'd made a mistake. His luck hadn't been good so far. He'd moved to Christchurch for a cheffing job just before the earthquake and found himself suddenly unemployed. His wife had more news: she was pregnant.
He scrabbled a living at one of the informal restaurants that sprung up post-quake, then started selling his own creations at the Lyttelton market. When a restaurant space became available he took it, and this became Roots.
And goodness knows how long he would have kept creating a 10-course menu each day for nobody, but one day a reviewer from food magazine Cuisine visited ahead of the publication's annual restaurant awards. He loved what he ate, and that year Giulio's empty Lyttelton dining room was named New Zealand's best new restaurant.
The next day Roots had to close temporarily. Not because no one had showed up to eat but to deal with the number of reservations coming in.
"We booked out the restaurant from June to December in one or two days" says Giulio. "And since then, it's never stopped."
Now, his energy goes into different things. Managing a sommelier, wait staff and three fulltime chefs; cooking, pickling and fermenting the seasonal harvest; cleaning the windows.
"People say to me 'why don't you get somebody else to clean the windows?'. I say 'Because nobody cleans my windows like I do'."
Each morning he meets his staff and they forage for parts of the evening meal. They're devoted to him, which is lucky because he expects a lot: long hours, six days a week, and often socialising on the seventh.
The year after the first award, Cuisine named Roots New Zealand's supreme best restaurant and, to celebrate, Giulio's boys in the kitchen went to a tattooist and had Cuisine's "three hats" inked on their bodies.
But for every glamorous award ceremony in Auckland there are 300 full days in the restaurant, creating dishes from Giulio's imagination and sending them out to a now busy and appreciative dining room. Nothing is out of season, most of it is hyperlocal, and even during the beige harvests of winter they manage to create beautiful, sublime-tasting food.
Then, as the weather gets warmer, the ingredients become more bountiful and the challenge becomes what to leave out.
"In summer, we could do 24 courses, easy" says Giulio. "If anybody would pay for it."
Dessert arrives and I ask about the fir tree pollen that comes dusted over the lemon meringue.
"I get hay fever," he says. "And I've heard that if you expose yourself to local pollen it helps. For three years, for my hay fever, I've been using fir tree pollen in my food. And every year, it gets a little bit better."
Details: For bookings, go to rootsrestaurant.co.nz.